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Dictionary of Miramichi Biography

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MITCHELL, PETER (1824-1899)

MITCHELL, PETER lawyer, businessman, shipbuilder, JP, JCP, MLA, MLC, MP, and senator; provincial government leader; Father of Confederation; b. Newcastle, 4 Jan 1824, s/o Peter Mitchell Sr and Barbara Grant; brother of James Mitchell; m. 1853, Isabella (Carvell) Gough, sister of Jedediah Slason Carvell; d. Montreal, 25 Oct 1899.

Peter Mitchell's father came to the Miramichi from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, around 1816, and his mother, who was "of the great Clan Grant of Spey Side," arrived in 1818. They were married the following year and settled in Newcastle, where they lost their home in the Miramichi Fire. Peter Mitchell Sr worked in the shoemaking and carpentry trades with William Masson Sr as partner and also conducted a hotel and tavern in Newcastle between the late 1820s and 1841. He and his wife had eight children, of whom Peter Mitchell Jr was the eldest son.

Mitchell attended the Newcastle Grammar School when it was conducted by John H. Sivewright and studied law with George Kerr. He was admitted as an attorney in 1847 and barrister in 1849. Until 1853 he was in partnership with John M. Johnson. He then withdrew from the legal profession in favor of pursuing a career in the lumbering and shipbuilding industries, at first with John Haws, with whom he formed a partnership in 1852, and later on his own. Between 1853 and 1868 he had at least twenty-eight sailing ships built at Newcastle.

Mitchell contributed to the fund for the construction of the Mechanics' Institute hall in Newcastle in 1850 and delivered an address on "Self-culture" early in the first lecture season. He also took part in the activities of the Northumberland Agricultural and Highland societies. In 1855 he was one of the three directors of the Newcastle Grammar School, and he was appointed that year as both a justice of the peace and a justice of the Inferior Court of Common Pleas. He was named a captain in the 1st Battalion of militia in 1865.

In 1852 Mitchell contested the by-election held to fill the assembly seat formerly occupied by Alexander Rankin. He was still not well known in the riding at large and went down to defeat, but through his business and other associations he soon came to meet and be admired by all classes of people. It was said that he was always courteous towards the humblest individuals and had a habit of shaking hands with everyone, whether an election was in the wind or not. He was successful in the general elections of 1856 and 1857 and was named to the Executive Council in 1859. He did not reoffer in the election of 1861 but was appointed to the Legislative Council.

Mitchell was an exceptionally able politician, and throughout the early 1860s he was one of the most vocal advocates of Confederation. In 1864, he took part in the Quebec Conference. After the resignation of the provincial administration headed by Albert J. Smith, he was called upon to form a government, and he successfully championed the cause of Confederation in the election of 1866. He was later a delegate to the London Conference, at which the BNA Act was drafted and is thus one of the Fathers of Confederation.

It was not for his statesman-like achievements that Mitchell was most admired on the Miramichi, however, but for his success in getting the necessary commitments for the Intercolonial Railway to follow the "North Shore Route" through Northumberland County, rather than a route along the St John River such as Walter M. Buck and politicians elsewhere in the province had proposed.

After Confederation, Mitchell was called to the Senate and appointed as Canada's first minister of marine and fisheries in the administration of Sir John A. Macdonald. He was most effective in discharging the duties of his portfolio, and he was untainted by the Pacific Scandal which brought the Macdonald government down in 1872, but he reacted to it by resigning from the Senate. Declaring himself to be an independent Liberal, he sought and won the Northumberland County seat in the House of Commons. He sat for a total of fifteen years (1872-78 and 1882-91) but found himself in the political wilderness, with no opportunity to regain a position of power and influence such as he had enjoyed previously both in Fredericton and Ottawa.

During some of his years of disappointment in politics Mitchell experienced success in business. He still had lumber and sawmilling interests on the Miramichi. He was a director of a number of corporations, and he owned the Mitchell Steamship Co., which operated passenger vessels between Montreal and the Maritimes, and the Maritimes and Portland, Me. He also ventured into journalism, becoming editor of the Montreal Herald in 1873 and its proprietor in 1885.

Although Mitchell's political star had fallen, he expected to receive a knighthood or other suitable reward for his past services to the country. When he was passed over time and again he became bitter towards Macdonald and others and aligned himself with the opposition. In 1891 he retired to the Windsor Hotel in Montreal, where he freely expressed his political grievances to anyone who would listen. The sinecure handed him by the Laurier government in 1896, when he was named general inspector of fisheries for Quebec and the Maritimes, was small recompense for one whose public services, in the words of the Montreal Gazette, had been "of eminence," whose patriotism was "of the most ardent character," and whose ability "thoroughly qualified him for the highest offices." Many Canadians, and most residents of the Miramichi, would have shared the opinion expressed in the following lines by Michael Whelan:

Gigantic work had Mitchell done

But others reaped the rich reward

And wore the laurels he had won.

Mitchell Street in Newcastle has long been a reminder of where Peter Mitchell had his commercial establishment and shipyard, but there was no monument or marker in the town until the middle years of the present century, when Lord Beaverbrook installed a memorial in the Town Square and the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada placed a plaque on the post office. In 1964 Mount Mitchell, near the Nepisiguit River, in the remote northern woods of North Esk parish, was named in his honor, and in 1967, in connection with the Centennial of Confederation, his grave in St James churchyard in Newcastle was appropriately marked.

Mitchell's wife, Isabella (Carvell) Gough, was an independent-minded woman who was accused of having 'henpecked' him. She was preoccupied with religious questions, and while living in Newcastle, developed a passionate interest in Methodism. She 'came forward' at a revival meeting in 1862 and was credited with leading others into the church. She also assisted in having a new Methodist church built and brought into use in Newcastle in 1866. Little is known of her activities after the family left the Miramichi, except that she endured hard times. For many years prior to her death in 1892 she lived, not with her husband, but as an "invalid" and "recluse" in Toronto, where she was in consultation with "faith curers." Her religious affiliation is given in the official record of her death as Christian Scientist. By her brief first marriage to James Jacob Gough, a Saint John policeman who was murdered by street thugs in 1847, she was the mother of Jacob C. Gough. By her marriage to Peter Mitchell she was the mother of a daughter, Blanche G. Mitchell, who suffered from mental illness.


[b/m/d] Encycl. Can. / Advocate 4 May 1892, 18 May 1892, 1 Nov 1899; Biog. Review NB; county records (39/519, re. Mitchell and Masson business arrangements); DCB; Ganong Collection (scrapbook #5, re. Methodism); Gleaner 21 Feb 1853, 2 Jun 1855, 11 Aug 1855; Hutchison papers (re. Mechanics' Institute); JHA 1867 (re. militia); Manny Collection (F6); Manny (Ships); Martin; MacDonalds; Mercury 2 Jan 1827; official records (parents' marriage; wife's death); Rayburn; Williston Collection